Kids Health

Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Expert Explains Everything Parents Should Know

roughly 1 in 44 children has been identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) which was formerly known as Asperger's Syndrome
written by CAROLINE CHIRICHELLA
Source: Canva
Source: Canva

Asperger syndrome, or Asperger’s, was a previously-used diagnosis on the autism spectrum. Many of us may be familiar with the term, maybe knowing someone who’s been diagnosed or having been diagnosed ourselves. In 2013, however, Asperger’s became part of an umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. 

Those who are diagnosed with ASD may behave, communicate, interact, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. However, there’s often nothing about a child with ASD that sets them apart visually from other children, making it an “invisible” struggle, i.e., a disorder you can’t immediately identify by appearance alone.

Meet the expert
Dr. Amy Keefer
Supervising Clinical Psychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute Center for Autism and Related Disorders
Dr. Keefer is also an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Keefer is a licensed psychologist and is board-certified in cognitive and behavioral psychology.

According to the CDC, roughly 1 in 44 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which is four times more common among boys than girls. Here with the help of Dr. Amy Keefer, a supervising clinical psychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders, we’re going to discuss Asperger’s name change and what parents should know about ASD.

Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Expert Explains Everything Parents Should Know

 

Why the Name Change From Asperger’s Syndrome to ASD?

The previous edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-IV, directed providers to use one of three diagnoses for individuals meeting criteria for an autism spectrum disorder, as explained by Dr. Keefer: autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, or pervasive developmental disorder. “However,” she said, “the distinctions between these three diagnoses were not always clear and, as a result, there was a lot of variability in the way providers differentiated them. So when the next edition of the DSM (DSM-5) was published in 2013, the decision was made to collapse the three diagnoses into one diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder.” 

 

Why Does the Language Around Autism Evolve?

There’s a very important language-related discussion happening now within the autism community. “Many autistic adults have advocated for a shift away from person-first language (e.g., “child with autism”), which is what had been recommended previously as a way to emphasize the importance of the person and not the condition, to identity-first language (e.g., “autistic child”),” said Dr. Keefer. “Some prefer the identity-first language because it validates the central role autism plays in their lives and reinforces the idea that autism is not something to hide. But rather, a difference that should be readily acknowledged and celebrated.”

Dr. Keefer also explained that some adults, many of whom were diagnosed before the diagnostic change in 2013, strongly identify with the previous diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and prefer the term “Aspie” when referring to themselves. 

While there’s no consensus regarding what language is best, Dr. Keefer recommended that when talking with someone from the autism community, it’s typically best to listen, ask, and be flexible to adopt whatever terms they prefer for themselves. 

 

ASD and Asperger

Source: Marta Wave | Pexels

 

What Are the Symptoms of ASD Parents Should Know?

Autism is defined by differences in three crucial areas: social communication skills, repetitive behaviors, and restricted interests. 

Dr. Keefer said that in terms of social communication skills, autistic children demonstrate differences in how they initiate and respond to social interactions, in their use of nonverbal social skills like eye contact, gestures, and facial expressions, and in how they develop and maintain friendships and other relationships. “How these differences present varies significantly from child to child. Some children may rarely make eye contact and use a narrow range of gestures and expressions. Whereas another child may use these skills in some contexts but not in others. Additionally, some autistic children may prefer to spend most of their time alone. But others are very interested in interacting with others,” said Dr. Keefer. 

In terms of repetitive behaviors and restricted interests, Dr. Keefer said that autistic people sometimes:

  • Move their hands or body in repetitive ways
  • Repeat words and phrases or talk in a more formal way
  • Have difficulty coping if there are unexpected changes in their routine or environment
  • Have very strong interests that they think about and pursue very intensely
  • Are more sensitive to or more interested in certain sensory information (e.g., sounds, lights, tastes, smells, textures, pressure)

Dr. Keefer noted that children can display many of these social differences and behaviors for reasons other than autism. So it’s important to have a comprehensive evaluation by a medical provider with specific training in diagnosing autism.

 

What Are the Treatments for ASD?

Dr. Keefer said that school-age and adolescent children with autism sometimes work with an occupational therapist to develop strategies to cope when sensory input is overwhelming. “Speech-language therapy can be helpful to address expressive, receptive, and pragmatic (social) language delays,” she said.

Autistic children are also more likely to experience difficulty with learning differences, the development of independent living skills, and psychiatric concerns like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, and behavioral dysregulation. Children with these additional concerns often need extra support in school and may benefit from working with a mental health provider who’s skilled in treating children with autism. In some cases, medication can also help to manage attentional or emotional difficulties. 

 

What is Life Like for People With ASD?

Autistic children and adults can live full and meaningful lives. But as Dr. Keefer pointed out, they often need varying levels of support and intervention at work, at home, and in their community. “Aspects of their lives may look different than neurotypical peers’, such as how much time they spend with friends or the way they prefer to interact with others. They may also be excited about different things and process information differently than their peers.”

Although these differences can lead to challenges, there’s a growing recognition that society is richer when we embrace neurodiversity and work together to expand awareness and inclusion.

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